A recent morning at a just-opened Head Start in East Anchorage, staff kept a watchful eye on a handful of kids busy at play. One toddler painted at a miniature table while his brother browsed toys nearby.
After housing a string of restaurants over the years, the building has been renovated into an Early Head Start program that's a partnership between two nonprofits and includes a Yup'ik immersion classroom.
Besides the center's kitchen, signs of the facility's restaurant days (most recently it was Kogi Asian Buffet) are gone. Cribs, toys, books and tiny chairs fill classrooms with brightly painted walls.
Cook Inlet Tribal Council's Clare Swan Early Head Start Child Care Center opened this month and is for children 6 weeks to 3 years old.
CITC staff says the facility fills a need in the community for more Early Head Starts — federally funded programs intended to help make sure infants and toddlers of low-income families are healthy and prepared for school.
"Basically, if foundations aren't laid right, then whatever you put on top of it isn't as sound as it could be," said CITC Family Services manager Connie Wirz of child development. "And what this is providing is support to our families for them to build strong foundations for their children."
Tribal nonprofit organization CITC is providing grant management, health services and family support while Anchorage Vineyard Family Resource Center is responsible for the education and child care components at the Head Start, which will operate year-round.
While anyone can apply to the income-eligibility-based program, Clare Swan is for Alaska Native and American Indian families.
The center is funded through the American Indian/Alaska Native program branch of the Office of Head Start, "So right there the funding is directed for Alaska Native/American Indian children," said Wirz, adding that Head Start Kids' Corps. Inc. already does a good job of assisting low-income Anchorage families that aren't necessarily Native. Clare Swan's existence will hopefully free up spots for non-Native children on waitlists at other facilities, she said.
A classroom of up to eight children is dedicated to Yup'ik immersion. Language helps people stay connected to their culture, said kuspuk-clad Martha Foster, coordinator for the Yup'ik immersion classes.
Foster is from the community of Twin Hills near Togiak and grew up speaking Yup'ik. It's important for her to pass that knowledge on, she said Tuesday from the Yup'ik classroom, which includes kid-friendly books with titles like "Caqelngataq" and "Atua!" Among them is one of her favorite stories, the Yup'ik tale of how the crane got its blue eyes.
Only a few kids were at Clare Swan Tuesday — the facility's second day in operation — as staff members got into the swing of things. But there could be many more children spending their days there soon.
There are 72 slots available at Clare Swan, and the center had already received more than 90 applications as of Tuesday, CITC said.
"We really haven't advertised much. The need for quality child care in our city is great. For all income levels," said MaryEllen Fritz, child care partner director at Clare Swan.
Although Clare Swan costs $895 per month, child care subsidies should foot most of the bill for families, Fritz said. Not having to worry about child care costs can allow parents to focus on paying for rent, food or completing school.
"They want a safe place for their child to go to school, a place they can afford," Fritz said.
There are other Head Starts in town, but CITC having a child care partner makes Clare Swan's structure unique for Anchorage, said Wirz with CITC. Clare Swan is an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership, or EHS-CCP, a relatively new approach to child care for infants and toddlers in the U.S. where a child care provider teams up with a Head Start grantee and agrees to meet Head Start performance standards.
In fiscal year 2016, Congress appropriated $635 million to support EHS-CCPs, up from $500 million in fiscal year 2014, according to a U.S. government report on EHS-CCPs. In that report, CITC was listed among an index of grantees as receiving $1.8 million. Metlakatla Indian Community and Kawerak Inc. in Nome were also on that list.
"Without EHS-CCP funding, many child care centers and family child care providers lack the resources to provide the comprehensive services needed to support better outcomes for the nation's most vulnerable children. They lack the resources to attract and retain more educated staff. Integrating EHS comprehensive services and resources into the array of traditional child care and family child care settings creates new opportunities to improve outcomes for infants, toddlers and their families," the report says.
"So what we're able to do then is you've got your basic child care, and then we're saying, on top of that, let's do our assessments, not just developmental, but health," Wirz said. At Clare Swan, a health coordinator will make sure kids are up to date on immunizations. Vision, hearing and dental screenings will also be provided.
"And then on top of that, let's work with families and help make sure the families are engaged with whatever services might be helpful," Wirz said.
"So basically, to me, what we're doing is we're designing a mini village right within the city where people can come together in a way that's culturally appropriate but also developing those skills for city life."